Exit of Mian Sahib: Nothing Changes for India

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has disqualified the Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif on account of concealment of assets in his nomination papers for the 2013 General Elections. The case against Mian Sahib and his family members, began following the revelations in the Panama Leaks about the Sharif family’s offshore assets and companies that were not declared in the family’s wealth statement. Following the judgement he has resigned, and has nominated Shehbaz Sharif, his brother and currently the Chief Minister of Punjab as his successor. Supreme Court has also asked the corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau, to initiate prosecution in the trial courts against the PM and his family for possession of disproportionate assets.

This is the seventh time that the Supreme Court has sent the elected Prime Minister home. But this time could be different than the previous instances. The reason being that higher judiciary had received massive boost both in terms of independent authority and credibility following the lawyers movement in 2007. In 2007, following the imposition of emergency and sacking of judges by Gen Musharraf, a formidable lawyer’s movement for the restoration of judiciary was launched. This movement enjoyed a strong support of the civilians and thus had sucked in the parties of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan as well. The movement culminated in ouster of Gen Musharraf and the restoration of the sacked judges. This could have been a watershed moment for the evolution of assertive and independent Judiciary.

Although there were insinuations of conspiracies by the establishment (read Army and ISI), during the course of the trial, by the lower rungs of the ruling party’s leadership. However in order not to appear confrontationist, the senior leaders of the PM’s party always denied such conspiracy theories. The entire trial was conducted under intense media glare, and so it does not appear that the judgement was made under military duress. The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) constituted by the Supreme Court did have members from the Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), this certainly raised suspicions amongst the PM’s supporters. However, PM’s team did raise reservations in the Supreme Court about the constitution of JIT, but these were not regarding the ISI and MI members, but instead it had objections to the civilian members of the JIT.

There had been no confrontation brewing between the Army and the political leadership over major policy issues, apart from the usual jostling of space, and Mian Sahib had been able to manage such situations in the last few years. Last October there were media leaks about tensions between the civilian and military leadership when the Pak foreign secretary told the military leadership to take action against the militants - Haqqani Network and India centric groups such as Jaish-i-Mohammad (JeM) - or to face international isolation. However, the government acted with alacrity and it not only denied the veracity of the report, but also sacked the Information Minister. Neither is the Army right now in very good terms with the United States (US), it was only last week when US stopped reimbursement to Pakistan for the security assistance. So any encouragement from the US to overstep can be ruled out. Furthermore, Army has its hands full both on its Eastern and Western Frontiers. It launched operation Radul-ul- Fassad against terrorist assets, in order to consolidate the gains of the previous operation Zarb-e-Azb. Considering these operational commitments, perhaps Army would not have the appetite to indulge in political adventurism, especially when it was not facing any challenge from civilians.

As none of the usual triggers that have prompted an Army intervention in the past appear to exist now, so it is quite probable it that the Court acted on its own. Sections of Indian media have expressed apprehensions about increase in hostilities due to ensuing uncertainty and the greater latitude Army will have in absence of stable political leadership. However these apprehensions may not come true, since Army always had the last word on policy towards India. Even in recent times, the agreements made by Nawaz Sharif in Ufa in 2015 were torpedoed by the Army. Similarly, following the Pathankot attacks, the government promised investigations about involvement of JeM but nothing came out. We in India need not be much bothered about these developments in Pakistan. The concerns expressed by the media are a result of our own biased narrative that civilians are better than the military as far as India is concerned. A quick survey of history will reveal that the actions of civilians proved equally, if not more hostile and destabilizing for India and the region.

During the mid-60s, it was a nuclear lobby led by then Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto, a civilian, who insisted Gen Ayub Khan to start nuclear weapons programme, but fearing American backlash, the General ruled it out. However following the defeat in Bangladesh in 1971 when Bhutto took over as a civilian President of Pakistan, he ordered his scientists to start the nuclear programme immediately. This was when Bhutto famously said while referring to acquisition of nuclear weapons: “We will eat grass, even go hungry, but will have our own”. Similarly, it was the civilian government of Benazir Bhutto, of course in cahoots with the ISI, who midwifed the rise of Taliban. In its perpetual quest for strategic depth, during post-Soviet withdrawal phase in the 1990’s Pakistan had relied on the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring emergence of a pro-Pakistan Afghanistan. However there was a growing realization in Pakistan about the inability of Hekmatyar to deliver, and the government was scouting for an alternative Pashtun group in Afghanistan who could safeguard Pakistan’s objectives. So this was when Benazir’s Minister for Interior, Gen Naseerullah Babar was introduced to Taliban by the Maulana Fazlur Rahman, an important ally of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Fazlur Rahman’s outfit, Jamat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), had the distinction of setting up hundreds of Deobandi Madrasas in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan along the Durand Line. Graduates of these Madrasas went on to occupy the top leadership echelons of the Taliban Government and Pakistan began providing logistics, training and other support to Taliban. Maulana Fazlure Rahman was made the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign affairs that enabled him to lobby in the US and the Gulf States for political and financial support for Taliban. Taliban stormed to power in 1996 and ruled Afghanistan until the US attack on Afghanistan in October 2011. It still remains the centerpiece of the instability in Afghanistan and is relevant for any future peace process.

There seems to be general impression that Mian Sahib or his Party is against militancy and, and but for the military, everything will be honky dory with regards to existence of militant outfits in Pakistan. Interestingly, the same Maulana Fazlur Rahman is now key ally of Mian Sahib’s Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). This speaks volumes about any principled opposition to extremist ideologies. Cynical politics is practiced by PML-N, as anyone else, and they have demonstrated no compunction in hobnobbing with extremist groups, specifically in their home province of Punjab headed by the Shehbaz Sharif since 2008. Few years back there were media reports about the Punjab Minister confessing to making budget provisions to fund the activities of Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the political arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). This type of funding remains a perennial feature, and the provincial officials have justified this financial support in the name of welfare activities conducted by JuD. As late as 2015, a Federal Minister of Mian Sahib’s cabinet, Rana Tanveer said that they cannot outlaw JuD since it is a charitable, and not a terrorist, organization, and clearly said that the government had no evidence against Hafiz Saeed or his group. A report of 2016 in ‘The Diplomat’ says that PML-N in Punjab has been adamantly opposed to military operations against local militants because of its parochial political interests.

We tend to prefer civilians over military, however it needs to be recognized that it is the rampant flouting of all norms of democratic behavior by civilians that yield space and reason for the Army to occupy the domain mandated for civilians. The most important reason for the Pakistan military to enjoy primacy is the incessant failure of civilian governments to establish their legitimacy. The civilian governments are not only corrupt but also misgovern and utterly fail to deliver on their primary responsibilities of security, health, and education etc. Furthermore, in consonance with the tradition of the subcontinent, the two major and oldest political parties i.e. the PML-N and the PPP (of Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto) are run on dynastic principles. Therefore what Pakistan endures is a military rule, occasionally interrupted by the dynastically transmitted democracy of PPP or PML-N variety. We can see blatant display of this phenomenon even now when Mian Sahib anoints his brother, the current CM of Punjab, to take over as PM. Younger Sharif will in all probability give the CM’s position to his son, so a Country of 200 million is reduced to a family affair. Although the emergence of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on the national scene offered some hope of remedying this affliction of family owned parties, but it too has got embroiled in questionable activities.

Top leadership of both the parties is alleged to own millions of dollars of assets in Gulf Countries, UK and Europe. The ostentatious lifestyle led by these leaders’ borders on vulgarity in the backdrop of extremely pathetic conditions of the general population. They move around in convoys of Mercs and large sports utility vehicles, and live in palatial mansions guarded by hundreds of men drawn from the state security forces. This charade, carried out in the name of democracy, creates an ambience where people always look towards the Army to ameliorate the situation. This is how the paper ‘Guardian’ had summed up the mood on the street following the coup of 1999 that saw the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif by Gen Musharraf: “The mood in Islamabad last night was tense but crowds were still on the streets around the main government buildings. The majority appeared relieved at the news of the coup. Hundreds gathered in the streets shouting ‘Long live the Army’. "So, perhaps there is no need to shed tears for the exit of Mian Sahib. It could be argued that he did create positive vibes and tried to make some progress on trade relations with India. However, his departure does not alter the Indo-Pakistan calculus in any substantive way. Term of the present Parliament expires in summer next year and at the moment there are no signs that the General Elections will be delayed or the democracy derailed.

There could be reason of some hope for us if we discount all conspiracy theories and believe that the court acted without any duress, then the roots of Judiciary will become strong. A strong judiciary has the potential to reinforce democratic institutions, and over the long run, demands for accountability would have judges, bureaucrats and even army generals facing the law. Judiciary might help democracy if it brings to justice the Generals who overstepped their mandate, beginning with the trial of Gen Musharraf. Then Pakistan would be taking its first baby step towards balanced civil-military relations.

On Pakistan’s intransigence, India will face almost identical set of conditions as it has faced until now, until the fundamental nature of the Pakistani state transforms into a progressive social welfare state. Civilian supremacy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this transformation to occur. This condition will only be met when Pakistan reforms itself from its paranoid rivalry with India. This will not happen spontaneously; perhaps we need to ponder over why India’s former National security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon termed Indo-Pak relations as “one of the few major failures of Indian foreign policy.” Till its paranoia is cured, Kashmir will continue to be the “jugular vein of Pakistan”, and Pakistan will continue to strive in its perpetual quest for “strategic depth in Afghanistan”, regardless who becomes the Prime Minister.


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